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In our opinion: Don't demolish the Road Home just yet

People walk past the Road Home in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2018.
People walk past the Road Home in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2018.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

With the state’s purchase of the Road Home shelter come questions as to exactly what use that property should be put to, and whether it’s appropriate to conclude at this point that it will not be useful in the continued management of a homelessness problem that may or may not be improving along the Wasatch Front.

The state intends to shut down the shelter next summer as smaller facilities open up to serve distinct portions of the homeless population. Some in Salt Lake City government raised concerns earlier this year that the closure will seriously restrict space necessary to offer services to a population that data does not suggest is shrinking, and that may actually be growing along with the general population.

State officials have said the newly acquired property could be converted into storage space for historic artifacts, but those in charge of managing the state and Salt Lake County’s attack on homelessness have promised to assess the situation before making a final decision. It’s good that officials are keeping an open mind about the use of the Road Home facility, even though there has been a focused campaign to break up the concentration of homeless services in the Rio Grande district, long plagued by problems associated with the homeless population, including panhandling and drug dealing.

While strides have been made in raising awareness of long-term homelessness, the jury is still out on whether that problem is truly abating. A recent Utah Policy poll shows 45 percent of Salt Lake City residents feel the problem has remained the same, while roughly a quarter believe it’s gotten worse. Perception and reality don’t always match, but it’s in the state’s best interests to clearly enunciate its intentions for the shelter in light of public concern over whether the campaign is truly reducing the homeless population or merely dispersing it from the western sections of downtown. Other parts of the city are reporting struggles with homeless campers and panhandlers who have moved on from the traditional service hub. The collaborative campaign to reduce homelessness is exactly what the problem has called for, but it is a process, not an event.

In the worst-case scenario, the state would close the Road Home and shortly thereafter discover a lack of space to accommodate all of those seeking shelter, particularly during periods of cold weather. Much remains to be done in regard to assisting long-term and short-term homeless people find jobs and permanent housing. The lack of affordable housing in the metropolitan area will persist for years, despite a construction boom.

Progress has been made and we expect more, but there will be stumbling blocks along the way. It’s good that state and local leaders are optimistic the campaign will achieve its goals, but it’s too soon to tell if the campaign will be far enough up the road by next summer for the Road Home to be renamed and repurposed.